Three former top US Capitol security officials are facing aggressive questions from two Senate panels digging into the lapses that allowed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters to overwhelm police officers and ransack the building as Congress was certifying the presidential election results.
The joint hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Rules and Administration Committees is the first in a series of lawmaker inquiries into the origins of the January 6 insurrection and the failure of the Capitol’s security forces to anticipate and then quell the riot, which left five people dead.
The officials — former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, former Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Michael Stenger and former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving — all resigned in the aftermath of the January 6 attack, and their testimony sets up potentially conflicting and contentious recollections of how things went wrong.
“We have a lot of questions,” Senator Gary Peters, the chairman of the Homeland Security panel, told reporters. “What did they know and what did they expect? Why were they not really fully prepared to deal with what was a very large violent attack on the Capitol?”
The assault on the Capitol was replayed in vivid detail at Trump’s Senate trial after he was impeached on a charge that he incited the mob. The Senate voted February 13 to acquit the former president, but the bitter partisanship of the moment hasn’t dissipated, even as members of both parties are calling for a thorough examination of the riot.
Two House hearings related to the riot also are scheduled this week, and retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honoré is conducting an independent security review commissioned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi also is proposing the establishment of an independent commission, modeled on the panel that investigated the September 11 terrorist attacks, to review the causes of the Capitol assault and the security failures surrounding it.
The hearing sets up potential conflicts among the witnesses. Sund has suggested that the two former sergeants-at-arms should bear more of the blame for the inadequate defense against the rioters because, he says, they refused his request —two days before the attack — that the National Guard be placed on standby.
In a February 1 letter to Pelosi other top House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, Sund also asserted that violence or threat assessments from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service and District of Columbia police were incomplete. And he said that Irving — during the attack insisted on going through his chain of command, which technically includes Pelosi, to get approval to seek National Guard support, resulting in a nearly hour-long delay.
“I wish that before placing the blame on the USCP and on me as the chief for the breach of the Capitol by an insurrectionist mob, more consideration would have been given to the impact of incomplete information provided by intelligence assessments, the denied National Guard request, and the subsequent delayed approval for National Guard assistance,” Sund wrote in the letter.
Irving and his former Senate counterpart Stenger will have a chance to publicly tell their account of what happened for the first time on Tuesday, alongside Sund. Differing versions of the events leading up to and during the January 6 attack are likely to feed into partisan narratives about who is to blame.
Those partisan recriminations are already seeping into the inquiries.
The two parties are haggling over the composition of the independent commission that Pelosi has proposed. Republicans have objected to a Democratic proposals for 11-seat panel that would give seven seats to Democratic appointees — including three to be named by President Joe Biden — and four to Republicans. GOP leaders want the panel evenly divided.
Separately, some House Republicans have seized on Sund’s Feb. 1 letter to demand answers from Pelosi on her role in planning for Jan. 6 and the responses to the violence that day. Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, has dismissed that as a “transparently partisan attempt“ to lay blame on the speaker while ignoring the role of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who appointed Stenger.
This week, there are two more House hearings related to the Jan. 6 riot — including one involving testimony from the acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman and House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett on Thursday. Both of them already have testified in a closed hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.
Capitol Police officers are still reeling from the attack that left one officer dead and 140 Capitol and Metropolitan Police officers injured. A member of the Capitol force and a DC police officer committed suicide after the assault.
DC Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee is a fourth witnesses invited to answer questions at the hearing Tuesday.
David Schanzer, a terrorism and homeland security expert at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said politically divisive hearings in Congress could get in the way of any independent attempt at fact-finding.
“Sometimes public hearings that are held very close to an event without a lot of time and effort putting into the foundations of an investigation beforehand — collecting documents, document review, interviewing lots of witnesses — can tend to be more about political theater than getting to the ground truth,” he said.
He said a bipartisan independent commission can have more credibility and “can take more time outside the cauldron of open, televised hearing to do the ground truth.”